Archive for March, 2013

This Just In: Bonus Money for High Test Scores Leads to Cheating

March 31, 2013 Comments off

The story about Governor Sonny Perdue’s relentless pursuit of the truth about school performance in yesterday’s NYTimes should turn the stomach of Arne Duncan, every member of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and every educator who stood on the sidelines while this happened. I hope that those who formerly praised Dr. Hall’s “success” would speak out against the cheating that occurred, hail the work done by the investigative team assembled by Sonny Perdue, praise those who cooperated with the investigators, and MAYBE question the wisdom of linking test scores to compensation. … especially given the conclusions drawn by the Times reporters:

It is not just an Atlanta problem. Cheating has grown at school districts around the country as standardized testing has become a primary means of evaluating teachers, principals and schools. In El Paso, a superintendent went to prison recently after removing low-performing children from classes to improve the district’s test scores. In Ohio, state officials are investigating whether several urban districts intentionally listed low-performing students as having withdrawn even though they were still in school.

What I found particularly appalling was the pushback Governor Perdue encountered:

What made Dr. Hall just about untouchable was her strong ties to local business leaders. Atlanta prides itself in being a progressive Southern city when it comes to education, entrepreneurship and race — and Dr. Hall’s rising test scores were good news on all those fronts. She is an African-American woman who had turned around a mainly poor African-American school district, which would make Atlanta an even more desirable destination for businesses.

And so when Mr. Perdue challenged the test results that underpinned everything — even though he was a conservative Republican businessman — he met strong resistance from the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

“There was extensive subtle pressure,” Mr. Perdue said. “They’d say, ‘Do you really think there is anything there? We have to make sure we don’t hurt the city.’ Good friends broke with me over this.”

“I was dumbfounded that the business community would not want the truth,” he said. “These would be the next generation of employees, and companies would be looking at them and wondering why they had graduated and could not do simple skills. Business was insisting on accountability, but they didn’t want real accountability.”

They didn’t want “real accountability” because. like taxpayers and politicians, the Chamber of Commerce wanted to believe that low cost “miracles” could “turn around” schools. The losers in all of this are the students whose test scores were changed and who were led to believe they were successful.

Now… we’ve learned the names of the Principals who cheated and the teachers who were complicit in the cheating… let’s learn the names of the Principals who DIDN’T cheat their students… and the teachers who REFUSED to play along… and let’s make sure THEY are rewarded for their honesty and integrity. Arne Duncan: here’s a chance to make a statement on the importance of playing by the rules.

Channeling Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s DAy Off I say: “Duncan?…. Duncan?…. Duncan?…”

This Just In: Principal’s Evaluations Are Accurate!

March 31, 2013 1 comment

An article in today’s NYTimes has the headline “Curious Grade for Teachers: Nearly All Pass”. As my comment to this article indicates, this isn’t a “curious grade” for anyone who’s worked as a public school administrator:

I retired in 2011 after working as a school based administrator in two different states for 6 years and a Superintendent in five different states for 29 years. This finding reflects my experience. The number of exceptionally bad teachers— whose who deserve an unsatisfactory rating– is AT MOST 5%. Our current evaluation system based on classroom observations and goal setting yielded this result and contributed to this result by counseling weak teachers out of the teaching profession. The “failing schools” and “failing teachers” meme is one propagated by those who are looking for a easy, cheap fix to a complicated problem that will require a greater investment than taxpayers are willing to make. The schools that struggle are the ones that serve low income children in low paying school districts with inadequate resources. Providing those needed resources will require more money. The millions of dollars spent to identify “bad teachers” would be better spent on under-resoruced schools.

Here’s what’s especially maddening: the millions spent by these States to prove what Principals already knew was spent on standardized testing… and the emphasis on those standardized tests impeded opportunities for innovation and individualization. We’ve been spending billions on tests that repeatedly prove that children raised in households where both parents are well educated and affluent do better than students raised in households where neither parent has a solid education and have limited resources. We keep establishing this fact and continue to do nothing about it… because it would require us to provide resources to those educationally and economically disadvantaged families and those resources would require more spending.

I had a tagline on the comment that I deleted at the last second. It’s one I’ve used in this blog before: When we spend as much on students in the Bronx as we spend on students in Bronxville we will have equal opportunity in our schools.

Bill Gates and Dunbar’s Number

March 30, 2013 1 comment

“The 147 People Destroying the Economy” a recent post on Common Dreams by Rickard Eskow, advanced the theory that 147 individuals constitute a de facto interlocking directorate of idea-mongers who effectively hijacked public opinion when it comes to defining economic issues. He contends that our opinions are molded by these decision makers and that the mainstream media unquestioningly echoes and recycles their austerity-based opinions on matters like the euro, the need for a balanced budget in our country, the fact that we cannot regulate banks that are too big to fail (TBTF) nor can we prosecute TBTF bankers. Where does the number 147 come from?

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar tried to find out how many people the typical person “really knows.” He compared primate brains to social groups and published his findings in papers with titles like “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.”

Dunbar concluded that the optimum number for a network of human acquaintances was 147.5, a figure which was then rounded up to 150 and became known as “Dunbar’s Number.” He found groups of 150-200 in all sorts of places: Hutterite settlements. Roman army units. Academic sub-specialties. Dunbar concluded that “there is a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships.”

That means that 147 people can change the course of history. Not necessarily the same 147 people, of course. But the small social groups which surround our world’s leaders have extraordinary power.

Eskow’s essay proposes that our economic policies are failing because of the very same 147 people who advise Obama are the 147 people listened to by the mainstream Republican leaders and the 147 people listened to by the mainstream media.

The “147″ run companies. They also hold fundraisers for politicians – in both parties.

When Senator Obama became President Obama, during the gravest unemployment crisis since the Great Depression, one of his first acts was to create a “Deficit Commission” instead of a “Jobs Commission.” Why? Because “147 people” thought that was the right priority….

Then there are the news anchors and journalists who say things like this: Everybody knows that we need to cut Social Security. Everybody knows the deficit is our most urgent problem.

This resonated with me because in education I have a sense there are 147 people who have decided that school reform means accountability based on standardized test results  and schools that “fail” based on these test results should be closed and replaced with private for-profit schools. Reform also means “choice”, because parents should be afforded the opportunity to enroll their children in for-profit charter schools or sectarian private schools if their “government controlled” public schools are “failing”. Everyone knows that standardized tests are the best way to measure school performance… and everyone knows that “choice” is beneficial.

And who are the 147? Well, Diane Ravitch has some ideas on that issue. In a post yesterday she suggested her readers look again at an article published in the NYimes in May, 2011, entitled “Behind Grass Roots Advocacy: Bill Gates”. The article describes several organizations Gates founded that advance his ideas on school reform… which are the ideas “EVERYONE” knows are true. The article included this prescient quote:

“It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who said he received no financing from the foundation.

The ideas one the economy that “everyone” agrees with now seem similar to the ideas that emerged from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation…. and the ideas “everyone agrees today with seem similar to those advocated by Bill Gates. The only saving grace: the blogosphere is making it clearer to people that the conventional wisdom on austerity and the conventional wisdom on “reform” is not getting the desired results and MAYBE it’s becoming clear that what “everyone” knows is wrong.

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Investing in the Future

March 29, 2013 Comments off

Paul Krugman’s column in today’s NYTimes describes a recent “change of heart” on the part of those who as recently as a month ago declared the deficit was creating immediate and urgent problems with the economy. Instead, he writes:

Suddenly, the argument has changed: It’s not about the crisis next month; it’s about the long run, about not cheating our children. The deficit, we’re told, is really a moral issue.

While much of the column describes why deficit spending during a prolonged recession is a fiscally responsible action, he writes:

You don’t have to be a civil engineer to realize that America needs more and better infrastructure, but the latest “report card” from the American Society of Civil Engineers — with its tally of deficient dams, bridges, and more, and its overall grade of D+ — still makes startling and depressing reading. And right now — with vast numbers of unemployed construction workers and vast amounts of cash sitting idle — would be a great time to rebuild our infrastructure. Yet public investment has actually plunged since the slump began.

Or what about investing in our young? We’re cutting back there, too, having laid off hundreds of thousands of schoolteachers and slashed the aid that used to make college affordable for children of less-affluent families.

Last but not least, think of the waste of human potential caused by high unemployment among younger Americans — for example, among recent college graduates who can’t start their careers and will probably never make up the lost ground.

I agree with Krugman’s economics and his politics… but he seems to be the only mainstream columnist who is advocating MORE spending and explaining why. Ten years ago he was one of the few columnists who spoke out against invading Iraq… but we went in their anyway based on erroneous information. Here was my response to Krugman’s essay, which reinforces the need for deficit spending on schools and technology infrastructure:

A recent study indicated we needed to spend $500 Billion to upgrade public schools… and many (if not most) States have moratoriums on school construction finds because of the downshifting of federal costs to the state level… There are roughly 25% of our homes lack ANY internet access and a similar percentage lack broadband, which is virtually required to access any on-line instruction. If we are REALLY serious about the next generation we should be investing in our schools and in the technology infra-structure required to provide every home with broadband. Instead we are closing schools and replacing them with for-profit charters and swallowing the telecom industry’s line that they will provide internet access over time. My conclusion: we are not investing in the future because the majority of our legislators seem intent on privatizing as many public services as possible.

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Public Schools Slowly Withering

March 28, 2013 1 comment

Two articles in today’s NYTimes have me discouraged. One by Fernanda Santos and Mokoto Rich reports on legislation in 17 states that effectively provides some form of vouchers for parents who want to enroll their children in private schools. The thrust of the article deals with the use of public funds to attend parochial  schools. This overlooks the fact that the real opportunity presented by vouchers is to for-profit private schools, an oversight I flagged in my comment:

The for-profit private schools will ultimately be the beneficiaries of this movement in the same way they have benefitted from the “choice” movement in urban districts. The taxpayers whose children finished school or who do not have children benefit as well since for-profit private schools have lower payrolls, lower benefit budgets, and lower operating costs.

The great thing about this privatization movement from a political standpoint is that it has no impact whatsoever on affluent school districts. Parents who can afford to live in an affluent district don’t need school choice: they’ve been able to choose their residence based on the schools their children will attend. And if they are among the majority of Americans who believe government regulation inhibits business growth they are happy to see the private sector tackling public education. Consequently the only opposition to this movement are those who work in public education. The narrative, then, become the “education establishment” against “reformers” with the “establishment” in the role of Goliath and the private for-profit “reformers” assuming the role of David.

Those who read this blog (and those of Diane Ravitch) know how this story unfolded:

  • Federal legislators enacted NCLB, which resulted in most public schools in America receiving “failing” grades based on the performance of one or more cohorts of students at one or more grade level and established a mechanism for states and/or cities to “take over” failing schools. 
  • Profit minded entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to access public funds by creating for-profit charter schools to assist States and cities with the take-over the “failing public schools”.
  • Governors, state legislators and mayors— with the full support of the business community— used the takeover of “failing schools”  as a way to introduce less costly for-profit private charter schools into their States and/or cities.
  • Conservative legislators seized on the changing landscape to introduce ideas like vouchers, eviscerate unions, and diminish the number of  “government run schools”.

The other Times story was Thomas Edsall’s column, “A Republican Right Turn?”. Edsall quotes several Washington insiders who sense that the Republicans are moving away from the divisive cultural issues and trying to focus more on unifying ideas: one of which is the need for less government influence in the lives of Americans. The article included this chilling analysis from Grover Nordquist:

Grover Norquist, one of the leading architects, organizers and cheerleaders of what he calls the “leave us alone” coalition, is bubbling with enthusiasm.

Norquist told me in a phone interview that he thinks policies initiated by Republicans at the state and local levels, by breaking the link that joins individuals and families to government, are laying the groundwork for a continuing expansion of the conservative electorate.

Nearly two million children are now home-schooled, Norquist said, and their families have rejected government-run public schools and decided that they can do a better job on their own. …Along similar lines, Norquist notes, the number of poor students receiving vouchers to attend private schools is rising steadily as the passage of state right-to-work laws is gutting dues-paying membership in public employee unions, a financial mainstay of the Democratic Party.

“I’m reasonably confident that at the state level we are creating more people who want to be part of the ‘leave us alone coalition,’ ” Norquist said. He predicts that within the next decade, Republicans will take control of the Senate and regain the White House.

With public sentiment against higher taxes at any level, against government, against “greedy public employees”, and accepting the “failing public schools” meme, it will be increasingly difficult to restore confidence in public education.

Bubble Tests and Factory Schools

March 26, 2013 Comments off

Lisa Nielsen’s blog The Innovative Educator featured a link to a Jeff Branzburg cartoon entitled “What’s Tested Influences How It Is Taught”. The cartoon provides a clear example of how authentic assessment varies from the kind of formative testing done in the name of accountability today. My comment expanded the ideas in his cartoon to the next level: How it is Taught Influences How Schooling is Organized:

I would take it a step further: how it’s taught determines how schooling is organized. Your example with the bubble test and the pizza shop illustrate this as well. Bubble tests are administered to cohorts of students who are the same age because— of course— everyone learns everything at the same rate the same way everyone grows at the same rate. They are taught in a coccoon-like atmosphere because communication among learners is taboo. And drawing on the expertise of the community is a waste of time because they do nothing to improve test scores.

Developing a business plan with a group of students and a mentor engages students of common interests but of different ages, different learning rates, and different backgrounds. It requires students to talk with one another and collaborate. It requires community involvement.

Is it any surprise that corporations and big-box stores support the factory model?

Given the predatory nature of Walmart and chain stores of all ilks, small town pizza shops will soon go the way of small town grocery stores, department stores, and hardware stores…. and the small town public school will become a franchise business like Subway….

This Just In: NCLB and AP Grads Have Learning Gaps

March 26, 2013 1 comment

My daughter, who reads my blog and feeds me articles for my reaction, sent one over the weekend from reporting on a high school teacher Kenneth Bernstein in Washington state who wrote an open letter to colleges warning them that the Class of 2013 was not well prepared for the rigors of college. This quote from an interview with Bernstein explains why:

As kids started arriving after a couple years of No Child Left Behind, they were starting to arrive in our high school in 9th grade without having meaningful social studies. Social studies was not tested, so increasingly in districts and schools that were worried about their test scores they started sliding away from stuff that was specific to a content area to preparation for the testing.

Oh, you say, but what about the increase in the number of students taking AP tests. The high-flyers in that group are surely well prepared. Bernstein disagrees:

“(In teaching) the very, very bright kids I had in AP courses… I found myself between a rock and a hard place. They’re going to have to take the AP exam, therefore, I had to teach them how to write badly.”

Careful, quality writers put a lot of work into their topic sentence of an essay. But, as someone who has graded the AP exams, he says students don’t get any credit for that. Once again he found himself having to “teach to the test.”

Bernstein says he… couldn’t simultaneously prepare them to do well on tests and teach them to write in a fashion that would properly serve them at higher levels of education.

As I and many of my colleagues predicted, once the testing regimen took hold, schools would effectively require teachers to “teach to the test” and focus their time and energy on those students who are tantalizingly close to a passing mark… because THAT group of students can make the difference between a school meeting state standards or falling short of the mark. Nobody wins in this test regimen except the testing companies…. and the politicians who want to use test-based accountability as a means of avoiding the real problem with public education: poverty.

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